Recently, five different unsolved cases related to Richard Cottingham have been closed, included Diane Cusick’s one, committed in 1968, about which Cottingham plead guilty in December 2022. This cases have been solved thanks to you and your partner Jennifer Weiss. How did the lives of the two of you came across and what role did she play in the solving of the cases?
Jennifer is the biological daughter of Deedeh Goodarzi, one of the two victims in the 1979 “Times Square Torso Murders.” Both victims had been decapitated and Cottingham took their severed heads with him when he left the scene and the heads were never found because when Cottingham was on trial for the murders in 1980, he denied that he had committed them – period.
Jennifer had been given up for adoption by her mother about 18 months before the murder. When she was in her twenties, Jennifer wanted to find out who her biological mother was and learned that she had been murdered by Cottingham. Jennifer set out to meet Cottingham in prison to ask him where he buried her mother’s severed head because she wanted to recover it and re-unite it with her torso buried in New York’s municipal ‘potters field’ on Hart Island for indigent and unidentified dead.
Jennifer offered Cottingham forgiveness in exchange for this information and Cottingham was so moved by her forgiveness that he confessed to a series of other unsolved murders including that of Diane Cusick in 1968.
The challenge was that Cottingham’s memory is fragmented. He never knew the names of his victims and often did not even know where he had killed them because he would abduct and kill women on impulse while randomly driving around or commuting to work. Cottingham was inspired by Jennifer to confess but Jennifer had no idea WHAT and WHO he was confessing to. That was my expertise as a historian and what I brought to the partnership. I would probe and question Cottingham for slivers of details and clues that would lead me to pinpoint as a historian the victim’s name, or the murder location and the date. Once I extracted that information, police were then able to identify the murder, when and where, and find the case file, and in the Cusick murder they had accidentally save Cottingham’s DNA (remember, in 1968 DNA was still some fifteen years away from becoming a viable investigative tool.)
It also worked in reverse. As I became more familiar with Cottingham’s ‘signature’ and ‘modus operandi’ I began identifying suspect cases, that Jennifer would then target Cottingham with her questions. With me, Cottingham was more cagey and shy. He generally rarely talks to males. The vast majority of his correspondence is with women, but I think because of the serendipitous brief encounter I had with him in 1979 and our mutual nostalgia for New York of the 1970s (I am only nine years younger than him – so our paths could have crossed more than once in New York in the 1970s) he chose to talk with me.
Cottingham confessed to “make Jennifer famous on TV” – she had ambitions and an ability to be a television personality – the camera loved her. For serial killers, including Cottingham, what they do is about power over others. Power is what drives them foremost. Power to hold them prisoner; power to rape them; God-like power whether they live or die. As Cottingham said to me once, “Killing does not make you God; knowing who lives or dies makes you that.”
For Cottingham to be that God of life and death, he had to let some of his victims live. In fact, he claims he only killed one out of ten women he abducted and raped. Five survivors testified at his trial.
So forty years later, with Jennifer he now had power to change her life – make it better by confessing “to her.” It was as if he was now using “his powers” for good instead of evil and a way for him to atone for murdering Jennifer’s biological mom.
Jennifer tragically died in May 2023 from a rapid onset of brain cancer, and strangely both the serial killer and I are bonded now in this grief for her… both of us are old men, and both agree that if anyone of us three were due to die, it was him first, me second and Jennifer as a woman still in her early forties and a mother of four children, including three very young girls aged 8, 10, and 13 should have never died at all – if the world was not the fucked up place it is.
Neither he nor I still have contended with losing Jennifer but there is somebody who has come into Jennifer’s place, also with family murdered by Cottingham to whom he is now dedicating his confessions.
With Jennifer I closed nine cases, and Cottingham is officially now connected to nineteen murders. But he very plausibly claims to have killed between 80 and 100 victims between 1963 and his arrest in 1980.
I identified approximately 36 victims – “solved” some 36 murders – but “solving” is easy – CLOSING is the hard part – getting the police and the prosecutors to ‘officially’ take the case, re-open it, and close it. Nine Jennifer and I assisted in closing… but the remaining thirty-six officially have not be closed and might never be.
I believe that, amongst American courts, mental disorders are barely taken into account when it comes to serial killers. Do you think it’s fair or not that people as Jeffrey Dahmer, who was affected by various mental disorders and paraphilias, are not allowed to spend their lives in a psychiatric hospital?
Yes. The old 19th century standard for ‘legal insanity’ makes sense: a perpetrator is “insane” if they are “not aware of what they are doing or do not understand its consequence.” Serial killer know exactly what they are doing, they go through great lengths to conceal their culpability, and are completely aware of the consequences of what they do.
All the rest, their trauma, their pathetic abusive childhoods, their loneliness, family instability, etc, is bullshit. Millions of children around the world are exposed to the same kind of trauma and abuse, yet they DO NOT become serial killers or abduct, rape and torture women. Only a small sliver of a percentage do.
Their mental disorders and trauma explain their killing to a certain point – but it does no excuse them from being found criminally responsible. And that essentially is the issue, a court would have to rule them “not guilty by reason of insanity” for confinement in a mental instutition, from which like some serial killers who were treated that way, can be released once they are “cured” according to the doctors “treating” them.
In American Serial Killers, I describe two cases of serial killers who were “cured”, both committed two murders, and both were released after psychiatrists deemed them “cured.” Edmund Kemper, was fifteen when he killed his grandmother and grandfather, was confined in a psychiatric facility until he reached the age of 21, and was released to kill a series of young women; Arthur Shawcross murdered two children, and a decade or so later was released also “cured” and went on to murder and cannibalize a series of sex workers.
There ain’t no cure for love; there ain’t no cure for serial killers.
Surely, the mind of a serial killer is a complex made of biological, cultural and experiencial factors. Childhood events and trauma can create a dangerous mix. Do you believe that it may be possible to prevent the rise of a killer by manipulating one of this factors? Is it possible to take action within the boundaries created by biology and society or shall we solely hold onto the prevention? Can psychology and psychiatry prevent something so extreme?
In our age anything is possible. We still have not figured out that ‘X-factor’ – why some abused children become serial killers but most with similar histories do not. I often argue that we are still so ignorant that it is too early for us to dismiss old-fashioned supernatural Biblical evil. Maybe they are just evil, minions of the Devil… (whatever science in the future might define and describe as “evil” or “the Devil.”)
Serial killers are unloved children that come from broken dysfunctional families they are born into without choice. The utopian answer to your question is that if we could ensure the stability and economic and social welfare of families around the world and shower all children in love and affection, we would lower the number of serial killers. Of course. But now how do we do this? It’s a utopian concept.
The success of the recent tv series about true crimes, the success of your books and the number of visitor at the Serial Killer Exhibition in Milan demonstrate the never-ending attraction of people for the dark side of humanity. Do you think that people are just trying to exorcise the fear of “monsters” in real life or do they maybe identify a part of themselves within those monsters?
Both. They celebrate their own survival, for serial killer victims are “there go I but for the grace of God” – especially for women who are predominately targeted by serial killers (both male and female).
Most of my readers, I would say 80-percent, are women. In general I find one of the major preoccupations women have is the nature of their relationship with men. Encountering a serial killer is as bad as a relationship can go.
Some serial killer on the surface, like Ted Bundy and Richard Cottingham (who by the way were born 18 hours apart) are attractive, and women are also fascinated with the ‘secret lives’ that men they are intimate might lead. It is not all that unusual for some serial killers to be married, have families or to have girl friends. Their female partners often have problems with their man ‘typical’ of couples in insecure relationships, but women wonder, what do those ‘troubles’ mean – in rare cases it means that they are sleeping with a monster without realizing it.
That’s what fascinates women because not only might they potentially be a random murder victim, but they might also be married or dating a serial killer in the worst case scenario.
In American Serial Killers you say that the world is preparing for a new “golden age” of serial killers. Do you think that we’ve already passed a point of no return?
Well, if that gestation period between a sick child and it becoming a serial killer at the average age of 27-28, it means that the fuse is lit and burning from the last twenty years from socio-historical trauma in the United States of 9/11, the War on Terror, the 2008 financial collapse and the isolation of the COVID pandemic. It might be too late to undo that, even if we can successfully implement a ‘magic pill’ utopian solution I refer to in my other answer. Maybe for the next generation of children, but for the ones from the last twenty-years… the prognosis might not be good.
Do you want to share with us something about your future projects?
I have no sense of future right now. I am in a timeless cycle of trying to close the remaining murders that Cottingham had committed before he passes away – he is 76 and in very bad health. The moment he dies, anything that I have not been able to extract from him, dies with him.
Prof. Vronsky thank you very much for your time, helpfulness and friendliness. Good luck and enjoy your work!